Contrary to the expectations of many experts, the Russian aviation industry did not implode immediately after the entry into force of international sanctions. With the start of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, the western community of states closed its airspace to Russian aircraft.

Numerous airlines ended their cooperation with Russian partners and the aviation giants Airbus and Boeing stopped delivering spare parts to Russia.

Many voices quickly agreed: the Russian aviation industry will not survive two weeks. But more than half a year later, that doesn’t seem to have come true.

In Russia, almost nothing has changed for most passengers, at least on domestic flights. How can that be?

“It’s due to a combination of different causes,” says US aviation expert Richard Aboulafia of the consulting firm AeorDynamic Advisory. “Porous sanctions, existing spare parts stores, creative emergency solutions and the cannibalization of the existing aircraft fleet.”

Before the start of the Ukraine war, Russia’s airlines operated over 800 aircraft, almost all of Western design. In total, more than 120 million passengers were carried by Russian airlines in 2019, before the corona crisis, according to an overview published by the Russian state airline Aeroflot.

More than half of these flew on international routes. However, since the outbreak of war, these international flight routes have been almost entirely suspended due to sanctions.

According to Aboulafia, the breaking of almost 50 percent of the flight routes is also a blessing for Russian airlines. Because the reduced demand allows many aircraft that have to remain on the ground to be cannibalized.

“It is now their priority to get domestic flights. And if you don’t have to worry about serving the international routes, you can save a lot of miles on your fleet. So you can put these resources and spare parts that have been freed up in domestic operations.”

Russian aviation observer Anastasia Dagaeva also sees it this way: “Given the fact that there are fewer flights and more machines on the ground and at the same time there are no options to get critical components, then of course dismantling aircraft for spare parts is one the way out.”

Today, the Russian civil aviation industry almost exclusively uses modern Boeing and Airbus passenger planes. Most of these aircraft are leased and owned by foreign investors.

This is a consequence of the 2001 Cape Town Treaty, explains Aboulafia. “This treaty allows investors to assume that all participating states pose low credit risk.”

As a result, a developing country like Russia was able to renew its old Soviet-era aircraft fleet in the 2000s. With the modern Western jets, new safety standards and maintenance intervals were established in Russian aviation. “It resulted in an immediate massive leap in safety and efficiency.”

When the war in Ukraine began, many foreign investors demanded their leased aircraft back – after all, more than 500 jets with a value of more than ten billion dollars.

But in March, President Vladimir Putin signed a new law allowing these aircraft to be reregistered and registered in Russia.

“We ended up stealing those planes,” admits Russian aviation expert Vadim Lukashevich. “Now it’s our job to steal spare parts. It is a question of the survival of civil aviation [in Russia] today.”

Iran was also a great hope for Russian aviation. The internationally isolated country has been living under sanctions for decades and has developed various methods to circumvent them. However, this hope has not come true.

Aviation expert Aboulafia knows that Iran uses aircraft from the 1970s and 1980s. These aircraft are less dependent on semiconductors and software updates. “It’s much easier to cheat your way through older planes,” explains Aboulafia. Russia, on the other hand, uses very modern aircraft that rely on precisely these technologies. “These sanctions pose an enormous problem for the Russian aviation industry. Russia does not have any significant [civilian] aircraft production capacity of its own.”

At the same time, Western manufacturers are very good at keeping track of their spare parts deliveries. This makes it very difficult for Russia to get parts from other countries, Aboulafia said.

“I suppose at some point you will see a sharp drop. Because getting parts here and there, digging out working machines – that’s fine for six to twelve months. After that, I don’t know how to proceed.”

What weighs even more heavily for the American aviation expert Richard Aboulafia is the violation of the Cape Town Treaty. “In the future, no one will finance the delivery of capital goods to Russia.” This means that there will be no more new aircraft in the foreseeable future.

Author: Killian Bayer (Riga)

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The original for this article “The Slow Death of Russian Aviation” comes from Deutsche Welle.